Why Leaders are Heroes of Circumstance

Ship s captain

What do great leaders do?

If you want to write a book on leadership, you need a formula, so we have lots of useful shortlists. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jim Collins on “Level 5″ leaders:

  • Develop humility
  • Ask for help
  • Take responsibility
  • Develop discipline
  • Find the right people
  • Lead with passion

Zenger & Folkman on “Extraordinary” leaders:

  • Character
  • Personal Capability
  • Focus on Results
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Leading Organizational Change

Kouzes & Posner on “Exemplary” leaders:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

These are all great lists, and they point out that who we are as leaders matters a great deal.

But they don’t tell us precisely what to focus on. They don’t help us set our priorities.

Prioritizing Your Leadership Agenda

Should you focus on discipline? Hiring? Making the buses run on time? Inspiring your staff? Promoting innovative teaching techniques? Implementing PLCs or data teams?

I don’t know.

It’s probably a terrible way to sell books, so I don’t think you’ll hear this anywhere else, but I believe leadership is deeply circumstantial.

As I said in a recent article, the primary responsibility of a leader is to ensure, not merely influence.

Closing the Gaps

In every school, some of the things you’re responsible for ensuring will happen anyway. They’ll happen because other people take care of them, and because there are systems in place.

Other things will only happen if you make sure that they do—if you actively remind and hold people accountable for them.

And some things won’t be possible no matter how hard you try, because the school lacks the capacity to execute them.

So what you need to do as a leader depends on what’s left undone by the systems that are already in place.

Your job isn’t to fill in the gaps personally, but create systems that will.

So how do you identify those gaps?

SWOT Analysis

A useful tool for identifying the areas most in need of leadership attention is the SWOT Matrix:
Swot diagram, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SWOT_en.svg

Ask yourself:

  • What strengths can we build on?
  • What weaknesses do we need to address ASAP?
  • What opportunities can we seize?
  • What threats do we need to guard against?

If you want to be a heroic leader, don’t try to do the impossible. (It’s called “the impossible” for a reason). In fact, don’t be a hero at all. Be a systems-builder.

Use the matrix above to decide what needs to end up on your agenda.

Then, build the systems that will help your staff become excellent at everything on that agenda, piece by piece.

What are the areas in which you’re finding it most critical to build the capacity of your organization?

The Best Time to Make a Long-Term Investment In Your Leadership

Plant seedling

If you want to save money for retirement, you have to make the decision to not spend that money on something else, so it’ll make a difference for you later.

It’s the same with professional learning: The time you put in now, investing in your leadership, pays off through the impact you have on your organization over the long term.

In the moment, we’ll always choose the immediate over the long-term. I’m more likely to return my phone calls and answer my emails, because it’s more urgent, than to sit down and read a book that will make me a better leader.

Just like saving for retirement, we’ll never reach the point where we have a “surplus” of time to put toward professional growth. We have to carve it out, even in the midst of our busyness.

(In fact, it’s when we feel like we have the least to spare that it’ll have the greatest impact. If you started saving for retirement when you were 18, you’ll probably be in great shape.)

The best time to invest in your leadership—like the best time to plant a tree—was 20 years ago. The 2nd best time is today.

But we have to make the decision, purposefully. We have to choose.

Invest in Your Productivity

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Take a look and see if the Network is right for you.

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When Paperwork Comes Between People

Two people

How do you treat people well when your relationship is mediated by a clunky, externally mandated system?

In case no examples come to mind, let me be more specific…

How do you treat your teachers as human beings when you have a formal evaluation system with 692 steps to complete and forms to fill out?

Whenever a good idea gets turned into a policy, it inevitably gets clunky and impersonal. “I need to help my staff grow professionally” turns into “I have 240 one-on-one meetings with teachers this year, each accompanied by a form.”

“What are you proud of, and what are you struggling with?” turns into a form.

Classroom visits turn into formal observations.

I’m not opposed to any of this formalization, because without it, we’d have nothing at all in place in too many schools. Clunky and formal is better than nothing. We need ways to ensure that our students are receiving high-quality teaching and that our staff are continuing to grow, even if that means lots of paperwork.

But one thing I know about leadership is that people follow humans who are leaders, not systems that are run by people with leadership titles.

If your leadership consists of implementing the policies and procedures dictated by others, and nothing else, your staff have no one to follow. They need leadership, and leadership is inherently human and relational.

The Alternative

The best leaders treat the systems and procedures as a baseline for what they need to get done, then quickly move on to the real work.

“We need to get this form filled out, but I’ll take care of that—let’s talk about what’s really going on.”

Have your leaders said things like this to you? Mine have. I’ve been shown, by example, how to take the issues seriously but put the person first. I’ve seen how to meet the deadline and keep the state happy, without forgetting that the purpose of evaluating someone is to make sure they’re doing a good job.

Once that’s been done, we can devote 100% of our energy to helping them do a good job.

And if you don’t know until the form’s filled out whether someone is doing a good job? Then you don’t know them well enough to lead them.

How do you make sure the real human work happens, in between forms, deadlines, and signatures? How do you bring out the best in your staff?

When “I Trust You” Is An Insult

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“I trust you to do a good job.”

Is this a respectful thing for a principal to say to teachers?

“I trust you to do a good job. So I’m never going to bother visiting your classroom, except when I’m required to do a formal observation.”

The truth is that “trust” can be little more than an excuse for abdicating the responsibilities of instructional leadership.

Too many administrators don’t get very involved in instructional improvement, because doing so challenges the implicit “you teach, and I’ll run the building” pact that exists in so many schools.

It’s more comfortable for the adults if principals take a hands-off approach to teaching, but it’s not better for students.

We owe it to our students to not only trust our teachers, but to also be aware of what’s going on. To provide support. To push for improvement.

We have to trust our teachers, but we also have to be in classrooms regularly so that trust isn’t blind.

Two Secrets to Staff Motivation

How do you motivate your staff?

Professional pep rallies? Cash incentives? Promising to shave your head if staff meet their growth goals?

Cash motivation

No, no, and no.

What really helps engage people in their work is…

  1. Being good at their work
  2. Getting the opportunity to do the work they find rewarding.

So if we want to motivate our staff, the best way is by helping them grow, and capitalizing on this growth within our schools. The Learning from Leadership study says:

The primary aim of these practices [for developing people] is capacity building, understood to include not only of the knowledge and skills staff members need to accomplish organizational goals but also the disposition staff members need to persist in applying those knowledge and skills.

One critically important disposition is individual teacher efficacy—also a source of motivation in Bandura’s (1986) model. People are motivated by what they are good at. And mastery experiences, according to Bandura, are the most powerful sources of efficacy.

Building capacity that leads to a sense of mastery is therefore highly motivational.

The organizational setting in which people work shapes much of what they do. There is little to be gained by increasing peoples‘ motivation and capacity if working conditions will not allow their effective application.

According to Bandura‘s (1986) model, people‘s beliefs about their situation form a source of motivation; people are motivated when they believe the circumstances in which they find themselves are conducive to accomplishing the goals they hold to be personally important.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 68-69 (emphasis added)

When people get better, they also get more motivated. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Why You Need a Leadership Agenda

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How do you decide what to spend your time on? What should occupy your attention? How do you execute your most important priorities?

Actually, you can skip all of that…

You don’t have to decide…

You can just let things happen to you. You’ll stay plenty busy, and you’ll look plenty important.

But if you want to have an impact, you have to be a great deal more purposeful. You have to decide to make a difference.

And you have to decide how you will make a difference.

And that’s why you need a leadership agenda—a concise, focused plan outlining what your work is, how it will make a difference, and how you’ll approach it.

Strategic plans aren’t good enough; they’re too big-picture and don’t focus enough on what you, personally, will do to make a difference.

And daily planning is essential, but it doesn’t focus enough on the big picture.

To bridge this gap, you need a leadership agenda. It should include:

  • Your short-, medium-, and long-term goals
  • Your theory of action for how specifically your work will impact student learning in your school
  • Your agenda for each staff member (including any unverified hunches you’re working on)
  • Your big projects that you need to make regular progress on
  • How you’re reshaping the school and the work itself
  • The messages and vision you’re communicating to staff and the public

Without such an agenda, every day will happen. But it won’t necessarily happen on purpose.

With a clear leadership agenda in place, your time can be more productive, your energy can be more focused, and your impact can be greater.

How do you develop your agenda?

Instructional Leadership and “Other Duties As Assigned”

Do you want to be an instructional leader or a building manager?

Instructional leadership vs mgmt

Faced with this question, most of us know the “correct” answer (especially in a job interview): instructional leader, of course.

But do we really have a choice? Can you choose to be an instructional leader and not a building manager?

You can certainly hold an administrative position without exercising instructional leadership. Look around—plenty of people do.

But if you really want to be an instructional leader, can you disregard the organizational management work that’s often written off as “administrivia”?

An important and fascinating study of Florida principals found that leaders spent only about 10% of their time on instructional leadership work, such as classroom observations and PD. Meanwhile, they spent about 20% of their time on organizational management.

10% doesn’t exactly denote a top priority.

The more surprising finding: Spending more time on instruction did not correlate with higher student performance.

To investigate this weak link between student learning and instructional leadership, a report commissioned by NAESP and NASSP, the two largest associations of US school administrators, looked beyond narrow definitions of instructional leadership and focused on the role leaders play in organizations.

They suggest “broadening the definition of instructional leadership to include organizational management skills” (p. 5). Why?

Principals devoting significant time and energy to becoming instructional leaders in their schools are unlikely to see improvement unless they increase their capacity for organizational management as well. Effective instructional leadership combines an understanding of the instructional needs of the school with an ability to target resources where they are needed, hire the best available teachers, provide teachers with the opportunities they need to improve, and keep the school running smoothly.

effective administrative leadership provides a stable, predictable, and supportive foundation for a high-performing school…[and] that effective administrative and instructional leadership are inextricably intertwined and interdependent processes.

—Grissom and Loeb 2009; Blase, Blase, and Phillips 2010; in Leadership Matters: What the Research Says About the Importance of Principal Leadership, p. 5-6

In other words, teaching isn’t the only thing that has to work right for a school to be effective. Instructional leadership involves creating the conditions for instruction, not just directly supervising it.

“I’m not here to make friends!”

Boxer

Yes, it’s a longstanding reality TV trope.

But you might say something like this to yourself when encountering resistance to change. You might reassure yourself with these words when you’re feeling opposition to your agenda as a leader:

I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a difference!

And it’s true: It’s our job to make a difference, not to make people happy.

Or is there more to it?

I get a little uneasy when I hear people talking about staff resistance as a badge of honor, as a sign that we’re making things happen.

I think resistance is inevitable, but it’s not always a good thing. We have to look at the kind of resistance we’re facing.

Are people resisting:
The specific change that’s being implemented?
The way the change was brought about?
The pace of change?
Being pushed into something they feel unprepared for?
The leader’s personality?

Here’s the kind of resistance I’d be proud to create by bringing about a positive change:

The resistance that comes from thinking we’re doing just fine, from believing that an encore performance of last year will do just fine.

Most of the educators I’ve worked with aren’t resistant to change per se. They’re just resistant to the pace of change.

It’s easy for us to overlook this problem as leaders, because much of the burden of change—say, learning a new curriculum—falls on teachers. We have to provide support and keep up with the changes, but our learning curve isn’t nearly as steep, so we tend to underestimate the cognitive load and workload placed on our staff.

We have to realize that change often involves asking people to stop doing something they’re good at, start doing something they’re not good at (yet), and still get good results along the way. This is hard, and it’s our job to make sure we’re setting our staff up for success.

But we also have to realize that the preferred rate of change for a lot of people is “zero.” And plenty of other people would prefer to have their changes arrive at a rate of one every five years or so.

Our challenges are much more urgent, and it’s our job to make sure change doesn’t take forever. But it’s also our job to figure out why and what people are resisting, so we can make progress instead of just enemies.

Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Instructional leadership is always hard work, but it’s even harder when our plates are overflowing with other responsibilities.

The truth, for a lot of us a lot of the time, is that we can barely even get to the work of leading learning improvement. We squeeze it in, but it’s far from our primary focus.

Sometimes the best intentions can make this even worse: By requiring principals to complete plans, hold meetings, and take other steps aimed at instructional improvement, a lot of districts are making the job of instructional leadership even more un-doable.

I know principals who are required to complete 14, 18, or even 21 written plans a year, leaving very little time for getting into classrooms and talking with teachers.

So whose job is it to make sure the principalship is a “doable” job? My favorite researchers have an answer:

District leaders should acknowledge, and begin to reduce, ways in which secondary school principals are limited in their capacity to exercise instructional leadership by the work required of them in their role as it is currently structured…secondary school principals do not, according to our data, interact with teachers frequently and directly about instructional practice. District leaders need to find ways to help secondary and elementary school principals work with teachers in order to improve. They also need to help principals structure their work schedules in order to find sufficient time to do this…Most districts will need to have honest and in-depth discussions with their principals to develop procedures for systematically and practically monitoring implementation of instructional leadership. The needs and circumstances of elementary and secondary school principals may need to be differently addressed, however the bottom line would have each principal expected to take specific steps to enact instructional leadership in his or her school.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 92-93

Well-said…but I don’t think we can simply wait for superintendents and central office leaders to dramatically redefine the work of principals.

I think district leaders play a hugely important role in making the job of principals doable—empowering principals to be true instructional leaders—but I also think we need to take matters into our own hands.

I’ve seen what happens when principals wait for the central office to fix things. I’ve heard my colleagues complain, helplessly, that “the district” isn’t spoon-feeding them every tool they need for success.

Guess what? This is a hard job. It demands that we give our all.

But it also demands that we work smarter. It demands that we use technology, and smarter strategies, to get more done and get to the “important but not urgent” work of instructional leadership.

At conferences, I often give a presentation subtitled “Working Smarter with 21st Century Tools.” And you know what’s encouraging? Lots of people always come, which tells me plenty of principals are taking their productivity into their own hands.

Making instructional leadership “doable” is a joint responsibility: district leaders have to make sure they’re not crushing us with work that takes our eyes off the ball, and we have to make sure we’re developing our capacity to handle the ever-growing demands of the job.

What helps you get to the important work?

—Justin

“For all those idiot principals, this is just another way to play ‘gotcha.’”

Chainsaw man 1

A while back, while blogging for Education Week, I ripped into the over-hyped marketing for Robert Marzano’s teacher evaluation system.

That system is now in use in districts around the country, and just a few days ago, I heard from an educator familiar with how the system is being implemented. She writes:

With a well-trained principal who sees this as a tool to help struggling teachers identify their weaknesses, and then make suggestions for improvements, this is a useful system because it provides a common vocabulary. For all those idiot principals, this is just another way to play “gotcha.”

Ouch. May you and I never be accused of playing “gotcha” with the teachers we’ve been entrusted to lead.

Here’s the real problem: Any tool that gives us greater potential to be more effective in our work…also places upon us a greater obligation to use that tool responsibly. And we’re not automatically cut out to wield greater power responsibly. We need to work up to it.

Changing the tools does not magically impart the user with the power to use them effectively. I’m OK with a hammer and decent with a staple gun, but heaven help me if someone hands me a full-size nail gun.

As principals around the country gain greater power through new evaluation systems, it’s our job to make sure that we develop the skill and perspective we need to handle this power responsibly and with the best interests of students in mind.

ELR14: Wade Kerns on 21st Century Professional Development

Wade Kerns

In your school, is PD a sit-and-get, one-size-fits all experience? Or do you create professional learning opportunities that use technology to differentiate and meet the varying needs of your staff?

In this episode of Eduleadership Radio, Wade Kerns joins me to talk about 21st century professional development. In our discussion, you’ll hear:

  • Why most professional development is disrespectful to teachers
  • How schools are starting to differentiate and modernize their approach to professional learning
  • The tools that empower personalized, powerful professional development
  • How individualized 21st century PD can work in parallel to initiative-based PD for all staff

Eduleadership RadioWade is a middle school administrator in Baltimore County, MD.

His blog, Educational Leadership, Examined, is at WadeSKerns.com.

You can follow Wade on Twitter @WadeSKerns.

Listen Now:

Download this episode (MP3 format, 23 minutes, 31 MB)

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To Be of Use…and To Change the Work

Ox

From “To Be of Use,” a poem by Marge Piercy:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

It’s a beautiful poem, one often circulated to inspire educators. And I like its message: We need to work hard, and we need to be the kind of people who work hard at something worthwhile.

But I’ll add a challenge: We also need to be the people who say, “Hey, you know, they make tractors and conveyor belts, so we don’t have to keep pulling carts or passing the bags along by hand like this forever.”

We need to harness ourselves like an ox to a heavy cart, but pull that cart with the ingenuity of a fox. We need to reinvent the work even as we dedicate ourselves to it tirelessly.

Instructional Climate and Instructional Actions

Runningwitharrows

We all know we’re supposed to be instructional leaders, but what does that really mean? Research suggests two pathways for exercising instructional leadership:

The actions that principals take to influence instruction are of two complementary sorts. One sort aims to set a tone or culture in the building that supports continual professional learning (Instructional Climate). The second sort involves taking explicit steps to engage with individual teachers about their own growth (Instructional Actions).

Instructional Actions include principals’ direct observations and conversations with teachers, in their classrooms and in team meetings.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 77

If we ignore either of these pathways, our leadership is going to be severely limited. We can’t be the solo heroes who alone are responsible for improving teaching and learning. That work has to be shared tangibly in the school’s culture and climate. And if we think we can establish a conducive environment, then kick back and watch the growth take place on its own, we’re fooling ourselves.

High-performance instructional leaders understand that improvement is work. Hard work. Collective work. And work that we ourselves must lead. It won’t happen without us, and it won’t happen if we’re going it alone.

Setting the tone and climate for growth is necessary but not sufficient. So are walkthroughs and observations and conversations with teachers. Put these two approaches together, though, and watch out—great things are going to happen.

Personal Regard: Why Being Gruff Isn’t Worth It

The principalship is tough work, so it’s no surprise that it both attracts tough-minded people and makes people tougher over time.

It makes sense to be increasingly realistic and pragmatic as you gain experience, but too often we forget a key element of effective leadership: personal regard.

Gruff man with arms folded

Our society is filled with images of leaders who torment their staff: Donald Trump, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Anna Wintour, Gordon Ramsey, and dozens more.

I don’t know any principals who throw things at their staff, but I have seen, time and again, subtle moves on the part of administrators that undermine personal regard.

When we treat requests from staff as annoyances rather than opportunities to serve, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we judge a lesson without asking any questions, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we take the side of a student or parent before hearing a teacher out, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we don’t bother to find out what’s going on in the lives of our teachers, we’re withholding personal regard.

The alternative?

  • We can see ourselves as servant-leaders rather than bosses
  • We can listen
  • We can seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Steven Covey famously said
  • We can be aware of what’s going on in people’s lives
  • We can look at the enterprise of educating students as a shared responsibility, rather than a battle against our teachers

Personal regard doesn’t mean we lower our standards or ask less of people. It means we care more about people and invest more in them. As a result, we can expect more out of them.

What makes it hard to prioritize personal regard? What do you do to let your staff know you care?

5 Ways to Make a Change Happen Faster

When change happens too fast, it overwhelms people and diminishes their confidence that they’ll be successful. Skills take time to develop, and no one wants to be judged too quickly on a skill they are still developing.

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But some people think they should have three or four years to implement every change. Is this an acceptable learning cycle? Do three crops of students deserve to be practiced on while we drag our feet at getting up to speed?

Of course not. Part of responsible planning is to ensure that our “implementation dip” affects students for as little time as possible.

We need a sense of urgency, and we need to move as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our success.

Here are a few things we can do to speed up change.

1. Make the case

People need to develop a shared understand of three things:

  • The problem—why a change is needed
  • The rationale—why this is the right change
  • The theory of action—how this change will solve the problem

Too often, we identify the problem well, but fail to make a strong enough case for the specific change. When the going gets tough—and it will—resistance creeps in and people try to revert to the familiar.

2. Support and celebrate early adopters

You probably already have teachers who are pretty far along in doing what you want to take school-wide. Support them, give them access to advanced training, and make them experts. Help them become wildly successful.

They won’t necessarily want to be responsible for school-wide implementation of the change, but they serve an important “proof of concept” role, so make sure they are successful. If they aren’t, how will people who are less motivated succeed?

3. Set a date

Once the decision has been made to implement the change, don’t leave it open-ended. “When we have time” is not a date. “When there are no other big changes taking place” isn’t a date.

Set a date, and make it clear that the change will be “online” school-wide by that date.

4. Make a checklist

But setting a date isn’t enough. You also need to define what constitutes change.

When my school implemented a new writing curriculum, I made the mistake of thinking that it was enough for people to attend training and start using the new materials. Some people took off, while others dragged their feet.

As the months went by, I was dismayed to see that some teachers were not using the new curriculum. At all. One teacher didn’t even know where her copy was.

What was missing? Clarity about the key behaviors that signify the change.

I immediately came up with 10 indicators of implementation, and focused my walkthroughs for a month on these indicators. None were about skill, and all were about behavior.

As I visited each classroom, I checked: Are you starting writing with a short minilesson? Does your minilesson have a focused teaching point? Are you planning units by sequencing your teaching points? Are you documenting teaching points on anchor charts? Are you spending a good chunk of time conferring with individual students?

I collected data, and shared the aggregated results with staff. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s powerful to see that 80% of your colleagues are doing what they’re supposed to, and you aren’t. After that, things moved along more quickly.

At this stage, don’t even worry about whether people are executing these elements skillfully. That will come in time and with good coaching. The first step is to do. You can’t get better at something you haven’t started doing.

5. Coach Toward Excellence

Implementation isn’t a great destination; we need to push for excellence, and excellence requires continual growth. 

With our writing curriculum, we quickly realized we needed more expertise, and that expertise came in the form of classroom coaching.

Coaches don’t particularly like being asked to help people get better at things they aren’t doing yet, so make sure you push for full implementation before bringing in coaches. But when you do, get ready for amazing growth as teachers start to zoom up out of the implementation dip.

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Do you have a story of making change happen, slow or fast? What worked for you? What barriers did you encounter, and what helped you overcome them? Leave a comment below.

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